THE OPENING CHAPTER: FROM FELL FARM
It is always a chore for a woman alone to sort through a dead man’s possessions. It has been my inevitable responsibility this week in a cold year in which the winter fell hard on Fell Farm, the remote spot in the County of Westmorland in which I was raised in simplest of fashions, accompanied only by Eve, the deceased’s bitch. At least the snows have cleared for the time being! In the laborious process of this sorting of such possessions one may occasionally stumble on something of great interest which takes one completely by surprise: something that must always have been there but which had never gained the slightest recognition over the years or else something which has been kept well-guarded, out of sight of prying, youthful eyes growing. Then, out of nowhere, it reveals a whole series of truths that have remained hidden; truths which quite literally transform one’s understanding of one’s own life. For me, the book which I am now to reveal to you, was one such thing. I had often wondered what he had kept locked away in that simple but heavy chest that was entirely out of keeping with the rest of the room and, indeed, the remainder of our humblest habitation. Out of keeping with its whole geographical setting, one might go as far as to say! I had seen that old chest so many times: solid, the keeper of his most closely guarded memories; ‘the Ark’ as he had jokingly always called it before he had ceased to speak altogether, before he descended only into glares when an eye should do so much as to wander innocently in its direction. However, I still had no idea where he might have hidden the key and a search of all the obvious places revealed nothing.
Growing up as I have done – that is to say, with such an uncommon focus on self-reliance – I had learned how to do many a thing that would usually only be considered to be amongst the labours of men, things that not even women alone in the depths of the remote parts of this land would ever know how to do. However, up until that moment, filing through locks had not been amongst those skills. The labours of men! However, I put down the little heap of his old clothes which had previously been busying me: eternal damp and moth-consumed to patchy nothingness as they were, just as he had been in those last years, I made my way downstairs and across the creaking floorboards of the hovel, half tripped by the meandering walking lines of the bitch in the process, to where I knew he kept the few tools that he possessed – inherited informally as the unintentional heirloom of a blacksmith who had once dwelt here decades before us, prior to his departure from this earth and the temporary abandonment of this place to the sole occupation of the winds and rains and snows. The file was worn, a touch rusted on account of too many winters of exposure to the damp, Westmorland air and frankly, generally out of condition. I had seen it on many an occasion with the intention of moving it but had never quite got around to it. It would take time to work my way through that heavy lock. It was hardly going to be the most effective of implements for undertaking such a task. Nevertheless, it would have to do. The nearest alternative, whether any better or not, would have been many a mile away. I took it up the rickety steps with me to where he kept the chest, exercising care not to trip and stab myself with it!
I was right about it never being the most effective of implements and the heavy piece of ironwork bit into my skin unforgivingly as it fought against yielding up its secrets, creating weeping sores along the joints of a couple of my fingers – sores that would almost certainly stay that way for some time, forged in the heat of metal moving upon metal. One did not need to wait to know that! My nails were ground down by the action of the file itself too. But, most of all, it broke the silence. That was what was most worthy of remark to me. For I am accustomed to the barest of silences. However, slowly but surely, the thick band of metal that so stubbornly refused to give up the secrets of the Ark became narrower and narrower and, as I wore it through, the dull, blackened metal shone brighter and whiter along the line of the cut. Several times it fooled me with such glistenings and I allowed the warm metal to cool a little. But I stopped believing that I might be able to pull what remained apart with my hands. It had been but a foolish thought anyway, of course. There was only one course of action available to achieve what I wanted and that was to continue filing. Now, as I did just that, I became more single-minded and the earlier concerns that might have held me back a little – the cuts, the blisters and the like – ceased to hold any of my attention and I simply continued regardless with neither pain nor exhaustion of the fingers to be afforded any credence. My technique may have been lacking and it may have taken longer than it need have done but my determination eventually got me there and the file suddenly leapt through the last remains of the lock, the shackle bouncing off the body. I waited briefly before removing it, almost as a moment of respect for the felled creature. I would find out now what he had kept in there all those years. He could not genuinely have possessed anything of any great material value – I knew that well enough – but he must have housed something of great importance in there.
Therefore, I had half expected trumpets to sound and the sky to grow even darker than the deep mulberry-grey it had already been that day above the dark fells that cut out so much light from ever arriving at the chilled hovel that is Fell Farm. I had no inkling of it then but I was opening the door to a very private space in his life. However, initially, my response was actually only one of vague disappointment after so much exertion. For all I found at the end of all that effort was an unusual stone such as one might pick up from the ground in any field but with a hole bored right the way through it, a pile of old books and some loose manuscript documents – some in Latin; some in English by writers of whom I had never heard and who had sometimes not even had these books published. This latter were often just scrawled in the best hand of the moderately educated – in reality, little better than my own but then my own education was quite exceptional, to a far better standard than one would expect for a young woman in a rural backwater such as this. I owe that anomaly to his obsessive behaviour and absorbing interests and, in part, it turns out, to such books.
Yes, disappointment is the best description of what I felt at that moment. Books! He had passed half my childhood hiding himself away with books, barely speaking and his big secret in life had been… more books! How absolutely tedious! Rather lethargically, I placed all the books on the cold damp, long-splintered planks that passed themselves off as floorboards in front of me and surveyed them. A truly dull treasure this had turned out to be! I might have known that what he had kept so carefully, prized unto himself, would be only of the minutest of interest to anyone else! He would have had someone to talk to about it otherwise. Nevertheless, I pressed on. Then one ‘book’ in particular caught my attention for it had been rather purposefully tied up. That was what first drew my consideration to it. I unknotted the tie and discovered that this book too was written by hand. It was a mess to be honest: many of the corners of the pages had quotations upon them, upside down, drawn from Samuel and Isaiah or from the Gospel itself or else had been used in impolite and disrespectful fashion to ‘restart’ the cold-clotted quill, tracing out the repeated shapes of monotonous lettering. For the former, I think that they were almost nothing more than personal notes or reminders but the hand seemed familiar as I attempted to make out the cramped quotations. I did not get very far in doing so: the writer, short of space, had littered them with copious abbreviations that did not always make sense to me. Then I noted one much larger quotation at the front of the book which seemed to have been accorded some special pride of place. It was attributed to someone simply noted as ‘R.B.’ – but it was not the initials that struck me, it was the hand. I was certain whose hand it was now and it was that of a man whose first initial had never been, ‘R.’:
—‘Even now, I still hold that there are some who have achieved a certain measure of perfection.’
There was movement elsewhere in the cold, airy room – not airy through a copious supply of material space, I should add! The bitch – we called her, ‘Eve’, after her forebear (for my family had never given any weight to originality in names) with whom I had passed much of my late childhood; she had been the first one here so her own name no longer made any sense – was whining pitifully but soporifically as she descended into her dosing daydreams. And those sounds drifted up the few unstable steps. They only caught my attention for a second or so though, my curiosity now roused, I turned to the text itself. Yes, these were his words – there was no longer any doubt in my mind. I recognised not only the hand but the style as well: the vocabulary, the slightly awkward grammar that comes from being lost somewhere between the educated and the masses or even thinking in Latin the greater part of the time. I could not have been more certain had he come back from the dead at that moment and pointed to his own scribings himself. In some kind of fashion I suppose that he had!
There was a knock at the door downstairs. I could hear someone – possibly Mr Burroughs – opening it (for we were always less careful about locking doors than we were about locking chests!) and shouting around the door, ‘Janet? … Janet, girl…?’ It was Burroughs. I chose not to answer; that was my prerogative at that point. And he could not find me unless he entered the ‘abode’ fully – which I was fairly certain he would not, without knowledge of whether I was present or not. There was no further obvious movement from the bitch. In her old age she barely bothered about folk she knew.
I heard the door close again and the dulled out sound of footsteps was then on the outside, not downstairs. He had not entered and I stretched my neck like a harnsaw just to get a glimpse of the top of his balding head through the pathetic excuse for a casement as he walked away. Once I had determined that it had been him I sat absolutely still and silent too. I needed time to myself – sometimes there does not seem to be enough respect for that for a woman these days. Has there ever been? Then I raised myself from the creaking floor and found myself somewhere that afforded a little more comfort – but not too much, of course; there is no need for excess – before beginning in earnest to read. At the very top of a scribbled page of contents (now largely unintelligible), I found the confirmation I needed: it was not just ‘his book’, it was his life…
Matthew Brearley – his booke.